Thursday, March 31, 2016

searching for the wounds of jesus...

NOTE: This coming Sunday marks the start of Eastertide, a liturgical season I have long neglected. I am starting to grasp its deeper significance, however, and look forward to going deeper. This Sunday also marks the time 9 years ago when I first preached at First Church. My, my how quickly time moves...

When I was a very young clergy person serving a large congregation in Michigan as their
Associate Minister, I became enchanted with the stories of the Hasidic Masters:  these 18th century mystical Jewish rabbis of Eastern Europe loved to dance and feast, weep in sorrow and celebration, study and pray.  It was their deepest desire that “compassionate love would be shared from their mouths, hope might become incarnated from their hearts, songs of holy mystery might saturate human solitude and all of life would become a living Sanctuary to the Lord.” Some 35 years later, I still find Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, to be a source of inspiration.

One of my favorite Hasidic stories – from the Maggid of Mezertich – speaks to a new insight I am discerning con-cerning the wisdom of Eastertide.  The story tells us of a young Hassid who was married to the daughter of a fierce but brutally conservative man who demanded that the young Hassid make a choice:  either follow your mystical Rebbe, or, marry my daughter – but you cannot do both.  The soon to be son-in-law swore that he would not return to the Maggid and so the wedding took place.

·    But after a few months, or perhaps it was a few years, the young man could not resist the impulse to join his companions and their Master in their ecstatic prayer and song. When he returned home, however, his angry father-in-law marched him to the local rabbi for a judgment.  The rabbi consulted the Shulkhan Arukh - the mostly widely respected compendium of Jewish law since the 1500s – and issued this verdict:  since he had broken his promise, the young man was to give his wife a divorce at once.

·     Overnight the young man found himself on the street. He had no means of his own, no relations. Inconsolable, refusing all nourishment, the young Hassid fell sick. And with no one to care for him, died shortly thereafter.

Well, as the tradition continues, the story concludes like this:  When the Messiah will come , the young Hasid will file a complaint against his father-in-law as well as the local rabbi, charging both with the guilt of causing premature death.  Standing before the Messiah, the father-in-law will say:  I only obeyed the rabbi. And the rabbi will say: I simply obeyed our legal tradition.  And the Messiah will say:  Yes, yes, the father-in-law is right and the rabbi is right and certainly Torah is right. Then the Messiah will embrace the young plaintiff with a kiss and say:  But I, what do I have to do with them? I have come for those who are NOT right

That is my increasing hunch about what Eastertide is all about: what it proclaims about God’s grace, what it encourages us to nourish in our own spirituality and what it challenges us to oppose in our culture of control and bottom line thinking.  You see, this is a liturgical season in the Church that has long been ignored or misunderstood in our tradition.  It begins with the sayings of St. John who tells us a story about Christ’s resurrection and Doubting Thomas’ reaction.  And truth be told, because this story always follows our celebration of Easter, and so much of our culture emphasizes empirical proof, we have probably missed the whole point of this season – and certainly this story.

Like most preachers of my era, I have emphasized the incredulity of Thomas who tells us that he won’t believe that God’s love has raised Jesus from the dead until he can put his hand in the Lord’s wounded side and see the print of the nails that had pierced Christ’s flesh. But this year, I don’t care what Thomas says or believes or comprehends: he isn’t Messiah.  He isn’t the first born from the dead who comes back to breathe peace upon my life and yours. He isn’t the one who has come for those who aren’t right.

So, this year I find myself much more interested in what Jesus says and does in the story that kicks off Eastertide. Not Thomas – or Peter – or Mary Magdalene or any of the other disciples. For the first time in decades I sense that the spirituality of Eastertide has nothing to do with how the disciples initially react to Jesus; and everything to do with the wounds Jesus carries with him as the Resurrected Lord and how God has healed them.  Christian educator and author, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, gave me a clue when she wrote:

While the season of Lent means to teach us to engage our guilt, our sins against ourselves and each other, and t accept our guilt as an incentive to suffer for a change, Easter inspires us to get on with our work of becoming whole for a change and offers us the reality of joy to help us reach for and claim it… By knowing our fears and our wounds – and how they block us from growing in love – the joy of Christ’s presence in the resurrection leads us towards a healthy and holy transformation.  

+  Are you with me here?  Do you sense how the presence of the Wounded but Resurrected Jesus tells us much more about the spirituality and commitments of Eastertide than the doubts of Thomas? 

+  Doubts are ok – they have their place – and we all have them. But who wants to remain in the darkness with Thomas for the rest of your life?  Don’t you desire some joy? Some healing? Some connection with Christ’s new life?

One of the insights I am starting to grasp this season is that Eastertide has its own unique blessings and acts of spiritual maturation just like every other season in the calendar of the Church.  If, for example, our quest during Advent is to listen, watch and wait in patience so that we might discern where the Christ Child is coming into the world with innocence and joy – and our holy discipline during Christmas has to do with feasting and generosity – if Lent asks us to empty ourselves by fasting and prayer so that we might be filled with our need for God’s grace – then the spiritual practices of Eastertide are far more profound than simply singing “Alleluia” again and not kneeling in prayer for seven weeks. No, they point us towards naming our personal wounds and the suffering of our Lord in the world.  In a word, that the arc of discipleship we are being asked to practice during Eastertide begins with God’s transformative healing of Christ’s wounds on Easter but moves out into the world to the transform our inner suffering and the agony of those wounded by fear, war, greed and disease.

Think about it:  St. John tells us that Jesus entered the Upper Room on the evening of Easter and shared with the disciples the Holy Spirit of forgiveness.  These were the same people who had earlier abandoned him and now he blesses them with a sense of the Lord’s peace – and (gulp) forgiveness, for God’s sake – I mean he knows how he has been hurt and betrayed – and he not only gives that wound over to God – but lets it no longer guide how he interacts with these people.  That is why I have come to believe that during whatever took place between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Christ’s heart – let alone his flesh – was healed by God’s grace. ”Peace be with you,” he tells his friends – and then shows them his hands and his sides.  I don’t know how I missed that connection between Christ’s wounds and God’s peace for so long, but there it is. And we read this story every year on the Sunday after Easter:  Peace be with you – see my hands and my side.  There is clearly a promise of healing and transformation born of joy in however we understand Easter resurrection.  Because like the Hasidic masters said:  The Messiah has come with love for those who are NOT right.

But something else going on here, too:  Not only does Jesus share the gift of the Holy Spirit’s peace with his disciples – forgiving them – he also instructs them that the whole point of resurrection forgiveness is to help spread God’s grace around the world:  Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and if you bind them, they are retained.”

+  Let me be blunt:  we cannot and will not spread grace, peace or joy to anyone until we have tasted and trusted this peace within ourselves.  We cannot give what we don’t have – we cannot lead others to a place we have not gone – because we cannot show what we do not know.  That’s why Lent comes before Easter and Good Friday before the resurrection:  we have to own our brokenness – own it and learn from it – so together with God’s grace, it can lead us through the pain.

+ Fr. Richard Rohr cut to the chase in his book Learning to Breathe Underwater: Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing—that we must go down before we even know what up is. It is first an ordinary wound before it can become a sacred wound. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.” All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If your religion is not showing you how to transform your pain, it is junk religion. It is no surprise that a crucified man became the central symbol of Christianity. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter—because we will be wounded. That is a given. All suffering is potentially redemptive, all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them. Can you find God in them or not?

Without owning our wounds – getting treatment, help, counseling, prayer, discipleship, worship and community – the old wisdom of the Hebrew Bible continues:  the sins of the mothers and fathers are passed on to the children of the third and fourth generation. Until we are set free – until we have been fed on resurrection love and joy – we do not know the peace that passes understanding.  And until we know joy, we will always want to be right. We In control.  The boss rather than Christ’s servant.  Rohr concludes with this zinger that rings true to me:

Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure or security: Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We often given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of "Christian" countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I'm afraid.

Which brings us back to the start of Eastertide:  this is a season to become whole by letting go – by trusting the Crucified Lord, not some over-inflated, ego-centric, loud mouth obsessed with winning. But one who was executed as a criminal.  The great English evangelical preacher, Oswald Chambers, once said: Jesus rarely comes where we expect Him; He appears where we least expect Him, and always in the most illogical connections. The only way a person can keep true to God is by being ready for the Lord’s surprise visits.  Eastertide takes this one step farther:

All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are
not. Only when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough will you find that the little place where who you really are is ironically more than enough and all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect. That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God and such people can connect with everybody… because they don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .

When Jesus says, “Peace be upon you – see my hands and my side?” He is telling us as the Resurrected Lord what he taught when he walked among us in human form:  When did we see, Thee Lord and feed thee… clothe thee… visit thee and love thee?  Whenever you did such unto one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you did so unto me.”  The spirituality of Eastertide sends us out of the Sanctuary and into the world to see Christ’s wounds in the scorched earth, the polluted sky, the war-torn nations, the broken hearts, the frightened children, the unemployed mothers and fathers, the sexually abused and abandoned, the addicts and all who are forgotten and cast off by the so-called winners of our world.

We go out both to share a measure of resurrection joy with them…

… And to meet the Lord in God’s love -- especially in those places and truths where we least expect him. This is how we love the Lord in this season, beloved. May Christ’s peace be upon you all. 

+ RefuJesus - Naked Pastor -
+ Easter Morning -

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